by Grace Graham
Hiking can be a great way to get exercise, get a healthy dose of vitamin D, and see some new landscapes. However, getting out on the trails can be so much more than that if you just slow down your pace and hone your observation skills. There is a whole world of plants and animals out here and, with modern technology, you don’t have to be a field biologist to appreciate the diversity of life we have on the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed. Just a short while ago, if you wanted to do some field identification of plants or animals, you would have to haul a heavy field guide out and spend time leafing through pages and pages of sometimes rather technical jargon. Nowadays, there is such a cornucopia of easy-to-use online resources that any casual hiker can become an amateur naturalist.
These days technology is often seen as the antithesis of nature. Too many kids insist on playing video games rather than getting out to explore the natural world. However, if used correctly in combination with plenty of time outdoors, the internet can help foster an appreciation of the environment in even the most science-illiterate people. Listed below are some great sites for the identification of plants, birds and insects. On these websites, you can fill in simple fields such as the general shape or color of the specimen and it will spit out all potential candidates. You can browse pictures representing taxonomic groups to narrow your search. Some sites even let you choose which county you are in to really focus the results and give you a list of most commonly seen flora and fauna in your area. Most of these websites also have a posting section where you can put up a good picture of the organism and have it identified by the greater nature community faster than you can say Jepson Manual. Just take a point and shoot camera (learn how to use the macro focus!) and review the websites in advance so you’ll know what to look for when you see your mystery creature. That way, the other posters will have plenty of information to work with and post their best guesses. If you are in the field and just cannot wait till you get home to make an identification, the world of smart phones can be your friend. If you are on the watershed, there are some spots with 3G access to get you on the internet, but even in more remote areas, there are plenty of downloadable applications that will aid you when you’re offline. For example, Audubon has a series of phone apps to help you identify bird calls, trees and wildflowers in the field for generally less than the cost of book.
Now, these resources will never be as thorough or accurate as a field guide, and if you have the time and interest, taking a hike with a trained naturalist or studying up on how to key out species is definitely worth it. However, if you are just trying to satisfy some curiosity or impress your friends and family on the trail, these resources are a great option to improve your knowledge of local flora and fauna. There is really no better time to start taking your love of nature to an even deeper level and enrich your life with science. You never know what you might discover.
Interested in taking your hobby to the next level? You can become a full-fledged citizen scientist by joining volunteer programs like our Weed Watchers. Go on hikes and use your ID skills to help our natural resources team find invasive and rare plant populations. For more information about this program, check out our website.